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Saturday, 18 February 2012

Tonkin Travel

Tonkin Travel - Hanoi:

When we began planning our trip we soon realized that Vietnam was a complex place. We decided to seek the help of a travel agency. Some great advice we received from the owner of a Toronto Vietnamese restaurant was to use an agency in Vietnam. He said we would get a better trip for a lot less money. He was right!

Monica found Tonkin Travel from other people's blogs on Fodor and other sights. We contacted them and we were soon corresponding with Ms. Huong. She was very attentive and translated our preferences and vision into a fantastic trip. She was also very flexible and even changed things as our trip was underway. Our guides and drivers were all professional and we could feel there sincere desire to ensure we had a "real" experience.

We highly recommend anyone wanting a well planned trip to use Ms. Huong and Tonkin. She certainly was the key to our successful adventure.

Hotels in Vietnam

For five weeks hotels were our home. During our trip our nights were spent in a range of high and medium quality hotels and some rooms even moved on trains and boats. Here is our ratings of all of our accommodations:

Ruby Hotel - HCM:

We can't really rate this hotel, since we never actually stayed there. But it haunted us at both the very beginning and end of our Vietnam adventure. Upon arrival in the HCM airport our driver insisted that he was to take us to the Ruby Hotel. Only after we were equally insistent did he call someone to verify our understanding that we were to stay at the Caravelle Hotel. A simple misunderstanding since we were originally planning to stay at the Ruby and had only changed the reservations a few weeks prior to our trip. We were surprised though when on the last day of our trip our driver who returned us to HCM from the Princess D'Anna pulled up in front of the Ruby. A quick call and he swiftly brought us to the Caravelle. Perhaps on our next trip we will have to try the Ruby, since it obviously has a thing for us - and from the outside it did look pleasant.

Caravelle Hotel - HCM:

The Caravelle Hotel was just as we had pictured it. A Cosmopolitan lobby with excellent front desk service. We stayed here several times during our trip and each time it felt like coming home. The guest rooms were modern with very comfortable beds. The exercise room was large and well equipped and looked out on the outdoor pool. We enjoyed lazying about the pool, sipping drinks and warming in the sun. The Spa was on the same floor and for a nominal price they provided an excellent foot massage. The breakfast buffet was included and was phenomenal. It had a range of asian choices (Vietnam, Japanese, Chinese...) as well as western eggs, bacon and pancakes. The French influence was obvious in the pastries. So many choices, all superb and caloric! The Fine Dining Restaurant had a nice atmosphere, but the food was quite average and the prices were similar to any large city. However the rooftop bar is a must see. Apparently this is where the diplomats hung out during the Vietnam war. It has a great view of the city and excellent drinks. The hotel is well situated and near many great restaurants and nearby the famous Rex Hotel.

Kim Tho - Can Tho City:

After a long and wonderful day on the Mekong River we were glad to walk through the local market in Can Tho City and head to our hotel, The Kim Tho. Walking into the lobby it was immediately obvious that this was a business hotel. It reminded us of many similar North American hotels that are utilitarian in style, but still provide a sufficient level of hospitality. Our room was reasonably large with two beds. The bathroom was ample, although a bit strange with its large two person sunken tub. This was the hotel that also provided a "Birth Control's Cabinet" (Phong Chong AIDS) and warned that prostitutes were not allowed in the rooms. The hotel seemed to have a snack bar on the roof, but we weren't able to find anyone there. We did have a drink in lobby bar. But we would not recommend eating or drinking here.

Kool Hotel - Siem Reap, Cambodia:

We knew when we booked our trip that many of our hotels were 3* "Boutiques". There was a big price difference between hotels like the Caravelle and the Kool Hotel and we understood not to expect the same quality. The Kool Hotel was the only hotel on our five weeks that we cannot recommend. On the plus side it was small and located on a quiet alley away from the hustle and bustle. It had a lovely back garden with a pool which we did enjoy in the hot Cambodian sun. The room was small and the bed was less than comfortable. A breakfast was included but most choices were not well prepared. The owner was very gracious, but he was not around much. The staff were equally pleasant, but did not speak english or french well and so most times they were unable to provide much service. If you go to Siem Reap there are many first class and boutique hotels. This was not one of them.

Apsara Hotel - LUANG PRABANG CITY, Laos:

This was one of the best hotels we stayed in during our trip. Prior to arriving here we had been in Cambodia where the Kool Hotel had disappointed. We became proactive and sent an email to the Apsara to upgrade our room for a modest increment. This was a good decision and we had a lovely 2nd floor room with a balcony where we could sit and watch the local street activity and view the Mekong river. The bed was very comfortable and the room had teak furniture and all the amenities. It felt like an old French colony, which of course it had been some time in the past. The hotel is owned by an ex-pat British fellow and he understands hospitality. His staff were superb and went out of there way to learn how to make some of the drinks we requested. Breakfast was excellent. We had dinner at the restaurant our first night and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We highly recommend this quiet, low key but very comfortable and friendly Inn.

Conifer Hotel - Hanoi:

The Conifer became another home away from home. We stayed there on about six occasions as we journeyed off to other one night excursions. The Conifer was also a 3* Boutique, but it had a high standard of service. The staff were very friendly and happy to recommend local restaurants. They seemed intrigued that we kept coming back so often. It is a small hotel located in the heart of the City Centre. Across the street was the Press Club which offered food and drink and one minute away was the opulent Sofitel Metropole Hotel where we found excellent food, wine and cocktails. We spent one entire afternoon here sipping tea and other delights. The Conifer included breakfast and there offering were simple, but satisfying. Their Pho soup was the best choice. We would be very happy to stay here again and highly recommend it.

Sapaly Train Best Western:

When traveling in North America we try very hard to avoid any Best Western Hotels. We were surprised to learn that our sleeping car train was considered to be a Best Western. Tonkin Travel made the excellent decision to book us an entire four person cabin. The extra cost was negligible and it provided us both privacy and security. The room was ample with two bottom and two top bunks. The beds were surprisingly comfortable. The train was quite old and noisy as it rattled and swayed along the track. But the beds were suspended and we felt cradled. Our one complaint is although the rooms are "non-smoking" it seems that rule was ignored. The shared ventilation meant we smelled cigarettes most of the evening. Be prepared to be woken up (4:30 or 5:30) by loud music and a repeating advertisement for the train line. Helpful hint: Water is provided in the cabin. If you want snacks, pop, wine or beer you can buy it from vendors just before you board. You might need a glass or two to sleep through the bumpy night.

Victoria Sapa Hotel - Sapa:

Sapa is about an hour's drive from the train station in Laocai. The Victoria Sapa Hotel has many amenities including an indoor pool and Spa. The hotel is laid out like a resort with rooms a short walk outside from the main lobby. Our room was well appointed and comfortable. The bathroom was fairly basic and small. The hotel has a pleasant bar with a good wine list. We had dinner one night in the large dining room. There were more staff than guests and service was attentive. The food was fine, but not worth repeating. Breakfast was included and there were many choices. One note: the Spa provided excellent massage services and the indoor pool looked great; but both are about a 350 metre walk outside up a hill.

Moon Garden Home Stay and Halong Bay Dragon Pearl Boat - Please see the specific blog entries we made earlier on these two experiences

(Saigon) Morin hotel - Hue:

The Morin in Hue is an old refurbished hotel with colonial charm. The rooms were quite large and well appointed. Unfortunately they had a slight musty odor that never seemed to go away. The restaurant and pool were excellent. We ate two wonderful meals in their courtyard garden with attentive warm fun service and amazing food. Breakfast was equally superb. We would come back here in a heartbeat.

Life Heritage Resort - Hoi An:

Hoi An was one of the highlights of our trip. A quaint town we enjoyed the food, the streets and of course it was Lunar New Year so there were many celebrations. The Life Heritage Resort was a quiet oasis with great food. Our room was large and could have been designed by Conde Naste. We almost didn't want to leave it. The pool was equally designer friendly and has good drink and snack service. The main restaurant has an amazing seafood platter for two which could serve four. We were stuffed, but the food was so fresh and well prepared we couldn't stop eating. This hotel/resort is highly recommended!

Princess D'Anna Resort - Hon Lan:

Please see our separate blog entry for this hotel (Dead Dog Beach).

ICON Hotel - Kowloon, Hong Kong:

FANTASTIC. This was the best hotel of our whole trip. It rivals most places we have been throughout the world for service and quality. The experience begins with in-room check in and a thorough explanation of all hotel services. We had a Club Room which provided access to a lounge along with breakfast, tea and cocktails. The restaurants were superb and we had food experiences each time we ate. It was much better than the 2* Michelin Minto Court restaurant. The living wall of plants in the main lobby is a wonder to behold. We can't wait to return.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Hong Kong Ending

Hong Kong was a perfect way to re-enter the modern world. A city of over 9 million people crammed into an area smaller than Toronto. From hill to hill there are only tall skyscrapers that fill the view. Hong Kong receives over 42 million tourists a year, mostly from mainland China. These tourists seek out "Brand Bling" so every neighborhood has giant Gucci, Rolex and Prada like stores. Not our style.

We stayed at the Icon hotel and it was wonderful. It's service rivaled the Mandarin Oriental and we loved our room and the afternoon teas and nightly cocktails included with our club room.

Best of all was the view from our room which allowed us to watch the nightly light show in the harbour. And the food at the Icon was world class. Best chinese food ever.

And then...we flew off ... and home.

Next...our hotel, meals and guide summary reviews.

Top Ten Things You Can Carry On a Motorcycle in Vietnam

1. Five people
2. Baskets of chickens
3. Tree Trunks
4. A live cow
5. Two men and a ladder
6. A Small House
7. 5 by 5 picture in frame
8. Flat Screen TV
9. Small Refrigerator
10. Potted Peach Trees

Last Day in HCM

We arrived back from the beach today to the Caravelle Hotel. This is where it all began. We made sure to have a drink on the top of our building, just as we had our first night 5 weeks ago. Had dinner at the Huo Tuc again and did some last minute shopping. We also went to the Rex Hotel for a drink on their rooftop bar...because it is on a list of 1000 things to do before.... Found crowds of young tourists singing along with the Vietnamese cover band performing Lady Gaga and George Michael songs. We are certainly glad to have crossed this off our list.You should too.

And then we flew to Hong Kong, leaving behind Vietnam, only carrying our memories.

Dead Dog Beach

After spending Tet in Hoi An we grabbed a plane from Na Trang down to HCM where we were picked up by a driver and a "small" car to travel to a beach resort in the south. The size of the car is mentioned because the drive from HCM is usually between 3.5-5 hours. THe distance we travelled was only about 170k, but the roads are narrow and for most of the trip lined with a variety of shops and businesses - most closed fo the holiday. The drive was uneventful; only saw one tragic accident. The roads were relatively quiet given it was still Tet holiday.

We made good time and it seemed we would be at our resort within the 3.5 hours until we entered a small town and our driver began asking people for directions. Turns out we had gone to the wrong town! After some frantic phone calls to his boss he figured our where to go, apologizing to us the whole way. In his effort to make up the time, he scared us silly with very fast driving on rural roads. We arrived safe, but frazzled.

The Princess D'Anna is a quiet resort situated on a stunning endless strip of beach that goes for kilometers in each direction. There is a fishing village nearby which active each day with the business of fishing....nice to visit, but not really for tourists. We named the beach, "Dead Dog Beach" because the first day we walked down to the village we saw three dead dogs on the beach among the other debris left by the fishermen. This was not a fishing town with civic pride about its appearance. This was a concern for the hotel, since it is interested in the tourist experience. But it was far enough away from the hotel so unless you walk to it it is no problem.

The resort itself was busy when we first arrived, bustling with Vietnamese families on their Tet holidays. This was surprisingly our first exposure to wealthy Vietnamese on this trip. Basically upper middle class people seem to be the same everywhere in the world. We did notice that their kids were more plump and boisterous than most of the rural, poorer kids we had seen for most of our trip.

When we first arrived we were initially struck by the prices for food and drink. Basically the same as upscale Toronto restaurants. This was a sharp contrast from our weeks traveling the region and finding great food at reasonable prices. It took us a while to get used to this, but the chef and staff soon won us over. We were there 7 nights. On the 2nd night the chef came out and asked how we enjoyed the food. When we gave him a lukewarm, "nice" he wanted to know more. This turned out to be a good conversation because for several more nights he cooked up dishes in consultation with us and we then did get some great meals, including local fresh oysters, grilled scallops, frog legs and a special local pancake.

Most of our days were spent relaxing on the beach, swimming, reading and just unwinding from our wonderful, but busy trip. It was also a sad time for us since our dear friend Jim passed away. There were many tears and reflective moments.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Secret Garden Restaurant Cooking Class

We woke up early today excited about our all day cooking class. We were down at the hotel entrance at 8:30 sharp for our pickup. Our guide several days before had called and verified all the details. At 9:30 we were still waiting and after calls to the restaurant and from our guide a distracted young woman pulled up on a motor bike, identified us as the cooking school candidates and then urgently used her cell phone to call us a taxi. When we arrived at our destination she beckoned us from her motor bike to follow (on foot) her down a long curvy alley. This is how we discovered the origins of the "Secret Garden Restaurant's" name.

When we arrived we met three lovely English women who had been awaiting our arrival for the class to begin. So far we were beginning to doubt if this course was going to be as good as we had hoped. The staff seemed hopelessly disorganized. The same distracted motor bike woman had all 5 of us follow her on foot to "explore the market". It was a long walk and one of our party had a knee problem and was walking with a cane. Now it was Tet, the New Year and we suspected the market was going to be closed. Unfortunately we were right and there was some frustration that she made our hobbled companion walk the distance with no need.

But things improved once we returned to our perches on stools surrounding a cooking island. Two chefs, one who spoke english and the other who knew the food took us through dicing, slicing and preparing some interesting dishes (Toronto friends should benefit soon). We prepared fish in banana leaf, pork barbecue and steamed spring rolls. For the latter we made a form of rice crepes on top of a silk steamer. Now that was different and fun. It will sure mess up our kitchen.

Of course we then got to devour our cooking over lunch with a nice sauvignon blanc. The best part of this experience was getting to know our travel companions who had many exciting life stories and experiences to share.

Hoi An During Tet

We drove from Hue to Hoi An through the mountains and passed though Da Nang on the way. Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage town located 4k from the ocean on a windy river. The buildings reflect several different architectural influences with notable french designs. This feels like an old European city with small roads lined with shops.

In the middle of the old quarter there is an island accessible from several short bridges. Some people live on the island, but during Tet all we could see were many restaurants, an amusement park and elbow to elbow people as far as we could see. All the streets were decorated with hanging lanterns of many colours. At night the town was dazzling and quaint.

Hoi An floods almost every year up to the bottom of the second story windows so families and merchants have to move their goods and possessions to higher floors during the rainy season. It is know for its food, especially two types of "fat noodles" made form special well water. They did not disappoint and most of our meals here were delicious. We particularly enjoyed our $7.50 lunch for 2 that included beer, noodles and pork and spring rolls eaten on plastic chairs just inside out of the sun. It was crowded with tourists and locals and was scrumptious and fun. The Life Heritage Resort where we stayed also had a great restaurant. Our second night we had their seafood platter for 2 ($40) which could have fed 8 people. Fish, crab, clams, scallops, shrimp and squid grilled and steamed. Washed down with a good sauvignon blanc

The resort was small with well designed and luxurious spacious rooms. The pool was shallow but refreshing with comfy chairs. Too bad we shivered a bit given the rainy weather. We met a fun Australian family here.

In our next posting we will tell you about our cooking course at the Secret Garden Restaurant.